Here’s a Riddle: What are you left with when your husband drops dead; and there is no warning, no will, no money, nothing you owned, no children, no “estate”, and nothing of monetary value in the crappy little New Jersey apartment you rented together for 7 years?
Answer: A bottle of guitar polish, some old chapstick, and a book of dumb State Quarters.
I said it was a riddle. I never said it was funny.
Exactly one month from today, I am moving. Leaving New Jersey and going back to New York. Forest Hills, Queens, to be exact. For weeks now, I have been putting the life that Don and I shared, into boxes. Bags. Suitcases. Piles. This box goes to mom and dad’s place for storage. That one goes with me to my new apartment. This bag gets thrown away. That one gets donated to The Salvation Army. This one I might sell. On and on and on, making emotional decisions at lightning speed, as the days count down to when I must be gone from this room, this neighborhood, these walls. Time will not wait for my grief. Life will not be patient while I consider yet again whether or not to keep his favorite chair.
When you’re grieving and dealing with your spouse’s “stuff”, everyone is an expert. People attack you with their opinions. Everyone knows what you should do. “Only keep 10 items,” they say. “Anything you haven’t used in the last 6 months gets thrown away!”, they bellow. “Be brutal! Get rid of everything!”, they order, before returning home to their husbands and wives, who are still alive and well. People love to tell you how you need to do things, what is best for you. Do this. Do that. Keep this. Throw that out. Move on. Cleanse your soul. Get over this. Make space for new things in your life. You can’t grow with all this junk surrounding you.
And that is where it gets messy. When your spouse is alive and breathing, his dental floss or his nail file or his ratty old t-shirt might very well be junk. But when he is dead? It is everything. It is the only thing I have. There is nothing else. Just stuff. Each item becomes a tiny piece of them, something that is still somehow alive. Something I can keep. I study the dental floss like a CSI-investigator, pulling at the long string and trying to place my fingertips in the same place where he placed his the last time he used it. I unzip the old duffle bag that is sitting in the corner, wipe off the dust, and unveil the old ratty t-shirt that is inside. He played tennis wearing that ugly thing. Two days before his heart stopped, he was running around a tennis court in 92 degree heat. I sniff the shirt like it’s a fine wine, searching for his scent somewhere. Could it still be there after one year? Am I imagining that I smell him faintly? The plastic water bottle he drank from rolls out of the bag and onto the hardwood floor, taunting me. I pick it up. I fill it up with fresh water. I do not wash it first. I want to put my lips where he put his. I want to feel him through my thirst. I feel crazy as I take the first sip. It doesn’t make me feel close to him. I feel so far away.
What seems like lunatic behavior to one person, is someone else’s lifeline. What you see as nuts, I can’t be without. Those people on the show Hoarders? I understand them now. I get it. They have been through something traumatic. They lost someone that they loved, and they try to compensate by surrounding themselves with all of that person’s “stuff.” Time doesn’t give a shit about your grief, and so it marches on in that cruel way, and suddenly days become months, and months become years, until you are living in a pile of filth and trash and things. And all of that junk envelops you. It takes you over. It makes your world small, until you no longer really exist. You get lost inside the junk that isn’t them. It will never, ever be them. You know this, but you still feel paralyzed. You still feel guilt and gut-wrenching pains for every single item of them that you throw away. How can I simply discard of his things? It was his. He loved this stupid thing. It feels like I am throwing him away. It feels like he is dying again. How the fuck do people do this??? I have to stop now. It’s too much. Tomorrow. I will do this then. Seperating our life into boxes and bags is too exhausting for words. I need to quit my job so I can stare at this swiss army knife or that silly uniform pin that says ‘EMS” and decide what to do with it. These are awful choices, and I have to make them. I want to just leave everything here and run away forever. I also want to take everything with me and hold onto it for dear life. But I can’t. There are deadlines. There is rent to pay. There is reality.
The Entertainment Center in our living room. There is a little box sitting on top of it, which has a bunch of random items inside. I open it, with trashbag at the ready, feeling simultaneously victorious and like a murderer each time I throw another item away. Old pens. A piece of paper with a couple of music notes written on it. The startings of a song he was writing? Something he was learning? Seeing his handwriting gives me the chills. For a second, he is here and I am home again. There is a tiny bottle of guitar polish. He was always cleaning and taking care of his many guitars. I mocked him incessantly for treating his instruments as if they were people. The polish is old and probably expired. But he took such good care of his things. How can I just carelessly toss it away, like he was never here? Like he never even existed. I will come back to it. I can’t decide now.
The Book of Quarters. It has been sitting here, messing with me for weeks. Don collected State Quarters. He put them in this official looking book called: “State Series Quarters: Complete 100 Coin Set.” It took him years to build up the collection. He was almost finished with it. He still needed 6 states. I remember him taking me into 2 or 3 different places in the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts while we were on our Cape Cod honeymoon. He was anxious to see if they had the missing states he desired to complete his book. I laughed at him and his silly hobby. I found it lame. We had a conversation during our honeymoon that went like this:
Me: I dont understand why you collect quarters.
Him: (mock-pouts at me while folding his arms and pouting his bottom lip) Boo doesn’t like my hobby. It’s fun. It’s just something I do.
Me: But what’s the point? They just sit inside this book that you never even look at or acknowledge. It just sits on a shelf and serves no purpose.
Him: The purpose it serves is that I enjoy collecting the coins.
Me: But why? They arent even worth anything. I dont understand how that is fun.
Him: Well, Boo, you dont have to understand everything I do. It’s really not all that deep. I just like it, that’s all. It’s really no big mystery.
Me: Oh. Well that’s dumb.
Him: Yes, Boo. (laughing at me) I’m sorry my hobby is dumb to you and that it annoys you so much. Actually, Im not sorry. Annoying you is fun. Let’s go into this store. I still need the Montana Quarter. Come on Boo … (grabs my hand and walks me into store enthusiasticly) You know you want to look at coins with me. Isnt this fun?
Me: No. It’s dumb. (mock-pouting back at him)
Now, sitting here with this stupid book of coins, I feel guilt and sadness and pain. The logical part of my brain wants to take all the quarters out of the book, and put them into my giant change Jar, the one Don and I always threw change into over time, and then used it for laundry or tolls or saved it up and changed it in for actual dollars when we needed to. What the hell am I going to do with this Quarter Collection? I don’t collect coins. I will never collect coins. I have zero desire to collect fucking coins. But for some damn reason, I cant seem to make myself toss these dumb quarters into the Jar and be done with it. For some reason, it feels like stealing. Like Im stealing his hobby. Like Im mocking him while he’s dead. It seems really unfair. Then again, they are just coins. Why is this so hard? Why am I making it so hard? I wrestle with it for hours. I still cant decide. I need to do laundry and I have no change. The guilt creeps back as I steal from my dead husband and his harmless little hobby. I post my dilemma on Facebook, knowing how humorous it is, and knowing I will get many responses. Immediately, people start in with their opinions. People are getting emotional. Other widowed people who have their own individual issues with their loved one’s items, are becoming affected by what I decide to do with these quarters. Now it weighs on my mind, and the minds of people in cyberspace. The world is on the edge of it’s seat. Never was a book of quarters so damn entertaining. What will happen??? Will the widow make the right choice? Will she do right by her husband? There were too many people screaming and typing in my ear. I couldnt think straight, and I just wanted to be done with feeling. I took the few quarters I needed to do my laundry out of the book, did it, and decided to deal with the rest in the morning. I felt unsure about what to do, and honestly, only one person could tell me the right thing .. and that was Don.
Last night I went to bed. Last night I had a dream. It was the first time that my husband “came to me” in a dream, since months and months ago. There were two dreams where I “felt” his presence there, where It felt like more than just a dream. Both of them happened two or three months after he died. Last night it happened again. In the dream, I was lying in bed on my side like I always do. I felt his arms around me. He was spooning me, and my hand grabbed his as it reached around my waist. He was here.
“Your hands are dry, Boo. You should use some of my Chapstick on them. I still have some left. It’s in that little box on the entertainment center. Just rub it on your palms. It will help. You never used to have dry skin. I had dry skin.” His voice was calm and reassuring. I was safe again. All was well.
“Why are you wasting time talking about dry skin and chapstick? There are so many other things to talk about. I can’t believe you’re here.” My voice is shaky and scared. I’m crying.
“I’m always here for you, Boo. We don’t have to talk at all. I just want to lie here with you. I think that’s what you need right now.” He sighs into the back of my neck. I never see his face in this dream. He is behind me, and I feel him. His hands. His touch. His warmth. I feel him.
“I dont want to move, Boo. I don’t wanna move from this bed. This apartment. This room. If I leave here, and I go somewhere new, it will be somewhere that you never were. I don’t want to be anywhere that you never were. We were supposed to leave here together. I’m scared.” Now Im sobbing loudly, and his hand wipes away my tears. He rubs my back.
“I know you’re scared. I’m not going anywhere, Boo. And neither are you. You aren’t leaving me. You’re leaving this shitty, stupid, messed up state and going back to New York where you belong. Just remember – wherever you are, that is where I’ll be too. I know it’s not the same as what we planned, but I’m here. You need to know that.” He sounds like an Angel.
“I wish I could believe that. I wish these dreams would happen everyday. I wish I would stay with you forever and never, ever wake up.” My voice sounds like an alien.
We lay there in silence for awhile, until I stop crying. The whole time, I feel his arms around me. He doesn’t let go. Finally, I ask. “Are you mad at me?”
There is no hesitation in his response. “Of course not. Why would I be mad at you?” He seems hurt that I would even think such a thing.
“Because I threw away your stuff. And because of the quarters. You loved those stupid quarters.” I’m sobbing again. Ridiculously hard. These fucking quarters have made me lose my goddamn mind.
“Remember what you said on our honeymoon? They are dumb. They are just dumb quarters. What are you supposed to do with a book of quarters, Boo? They were my hobby. Not yours. Use them for laundry. Throw them in the jar. Like I told you years ago, it’s just a hobby. It’s not that deep. You do what you need to do honey. With everything. What’s mine is ours. It’s yours now. I’m dead. I don’t need a book of quarters. And you’re alive. And laundry needs quarters. Use them. They aren’t important. You’re important. I love you.” He starts to disappear now. His fingers unlock from mine.
“I hate when you leave. I hate waking up. Please please don’t go. I love you so much.” My pillow is drenched with my reality. My pain. My life. There is no response. He is gone. I’m awake. Just like that. I lay there for minutes and try like hell to get it back. But it’s gone.
After awhile, I walk into the living room, feeling as if a train just ran me over. I pick up the small box I had looked at yesterday, the one with all the random items inside it. I look at it and shake it, and it appears to be emptied. Everything was removed by me before. I sit in his favorite chair, exhausted and spent. Some time passes. Then, out of nowhere, Sammy meows. He meows again. He looks at me and keeps making noise. He is like Lassie with an important message. Something tells me to get up. Look again. I pick up the box, just for kicks. This time, the bottom of the box is not the bottom of the box. There is more. Another layer; like one of those boxes of chocolates with the paper in between. The corner is sticking up, so I pull it. Underneath lies some junk, or the greatest thing on earth, depending on who you are.
Chapstick. His chapstick that he used every single day for his really dry skin and lips that never quite got used to the air up here. I take off the cap, and twist the gooey, waxy substance into a ball, so it’s floating just above the top. Putting out the palm of my hand, I gently rub the chapstick back and forth across it, in a calming and slow rhythm, erasing my dry skin and my fears and my guilt with each stroke. Finally, I put it to my lips, and feel the texture go over my mouth, knowing that once, long ago, it was on his mouth. Knowing that I felt him in that dream, and that it wasn’t just a dream. Knowing that I can be at peace with my choices about his stuff, that isn’t just junk. Knowing that with every State Quarter I put into that washing machine, I have his permission, and that wherever I chose to go in my life, from now on, he would follow me. He will follow me. This I know, and this I choose to believe.